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TOPS changes continue going the wrong way

An issue the Louisiana Legislature continues to address poorly a House of Representatives panel this week kept that pattern going.

Yesterday, the House Education Committee passed along HB 399 by state Rep. Gary Carter. It would alter, whenever the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students did not receive full appropriation, the present across-the-board reduction algorithm. Instead, higher-achieving students, defined as those earning the top two categories, would receive no cuts although losing their extra stipends while the remainder would keep theirs only if their families had annual incomes below around $50,000, although they could recoup some from Pell Grants.

Speaking against it, James Caillier of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation said the change would subvert the merit-based principle of the idea. Before the state took it over, the Foundation distributed awards on the basis of merit, although to lower-income students.

In principle, Caillier was correct. But, given the low American College Test score and grade point average required on core high school classes (20 and 2.5, respectively) to qualify, let’s be clear and blunt: there’s nothing meritorious about that level of performance, and these low performers receive hundreds of millions of dollars yearly from taxpayers.

Low standards serve the purpose of inviting in a disproportionate of lower-income students. While well-known, this relationship often is misunderstood that explains why higher-income households disproportionately produce higher-achieving students. That happens because the same attitudes that typically create higher-income households – an orientation more to the future than the present, willingness to work to get ahead, and good habits such as meeting deadlines – are the same as those which tend to produce good academic performance, values usually successfully passed down from parents to children in those circumstances.

The problem with TOPS always has been it sacrifices quality performance in order to act also as a substitute for need-based college aid. Make it a true scholarship program that rewards actual merit and largely non-low-income households’ students would receive these awards – a notion Caillier, among others, has fought.

Carter’s bill exposes the nebulous nature of TOPS, openly admitting it has a need-based component and amplifying it – exactly the wrong direction policy should take. The change made a couple of years ago that created the across-the-board rule echoes the same mistake, when lawmakers ditched the rubric that in times of partial funding to remove funding from the lowest qualifiers while higher-achieving TOPS recipients remained whole.

The trend continued the next day when the committee sent to the chamber SB 380 by state Sen. Wesley Bishop, which would allow students who scored from 17 to 19 on the ACT who earned at least a 3.2 grade point average in their first 60 hours of university studies to receive a TOPS Opportunity award for the next four regular semesters.

That bill apparently would affect only a small number of students, but it changes the nature of TOPS just as HB 399 does. If the state wishes to pursue such a strategy, it should create a separate mechanism that allocates specific dollars to each school to fund that, rather than commingling with TOPS. Otherwise, this creates a perverse incentive for schools to lower standards in order to grab more money.

Efforts that dilute the already watered-down merit basis of TOPS must be resisted. These examples show that legislative majorities still refuse to learn that lesson.

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